13 August 2006


In between innings last night, two ersatz "Blues Brothers" entertained the crowd. It was false entertainment, of course. The "Ems" are a class A minor league team, and once a year or so, I end up at a 'picnic' night with some group or other that I or my wife are connected to.

And sitting with us was a Eugene old-timer, who told me the story of how Belushi started singing the blues sitting in with two local legendary blues bands. It was back when they were shooting "Animal House" here, and the partying that went on during that movie shoot is the stuff of local legend.

The point being, however, that the whole schtick had come full circle, and now what we were watching were two guys pretending to be a living entertainer and a dead entertainer from twenty-eight years ago ('Animal' House was released in 1978), ghoulishly going through the motions. Another pair of Elvis imitators gone bad; another version of American Karaoke. And about as entertaining.

But it's that sort of cruise ship band: something to relieve the tedium between innings, which is what the essay that follows is. Hopefully it is a better intermezzo than watching the ghostly echo of a time gone past at a minor league baseball game: All scandal and no play makes Hart a dull boy.

So this bit of buffoonery between innings, if you will. More "Unlimited Terms" will follow shortly. But, while the players switch sides, this intermezzo:


Twenty years ago last week, I wrote a book. It was one of those visitations of lambent fire that occurs oh, so infrequently. I later read that Voltaire wrote CANDIDE in (he claimed) two days, and I can attest that it IS probably possible. Had I not done it, I would not have believed it possible.

I had written for the magazines and newspapers for ten years. I was cranking out screenplays for second-rate productions at third-rate prices, for videos and features, and I had rented an office to write in -- one that turned out to be in the same building as Walt Disney's first studio. And I finally had enough money in the bank to work in longer forms than article piecework allowed me. The constant grind of deadlines, and the superficiality of working on this month's piece, and then dropping it to work on another one made writing longer works extremely difficult. You can't serve two masters: short-term articles and other put-food-on-the-table stuff, AND the contemplation that a book requires across weeks and months.

Maybe other writers can do it. I couldn't.

1986 was a hell of a summer. I wrote short stories. I wrote essays. I wrote longer form stuff. I wrote two complete horror screenplays (one of which also, alas, is still unsold twenty years later, although the political winds have shifted to the point where it is VERY timely), sold the other one and lived off the cash until 1987. The film was never made, but it bought 1986 for me, and I count it very successful screenwriting as a result.

[I never worried about the quality of the movies I wrote. Whenever they came out, the story was always altered, debased and ruined to the point that I looked like an idiot, and so I placed my pride in craft, never in art. That's the sad reality of the movies, kiddies.]

But between late July and early August, I finally wrote the book I'd tried to shop a proposal about since 1980. The late, legendary agent Robert Mills liked it, but wrote me that my proposal couldn't be shopped: the SUBJECT was not anything that the publishers wanted to see.

Even in 1986, the mind of America was being squeezed. The ideas that could be presented on bended knee to the publishers were severely constrained, and my topic was considered "out of bounds."

So, I didn't write the book until 1986, when, after ten years of research, it flowed out in a torrent: 80,000 words in six days. I sat at my SANYO IBM clone computer, working in WordStar on a gold monochrome screen, fueled exclusively by 2-liter bottles of Dr. Pepper (and a Mexican #3 dinner special from Dos Burritos once a day). It was the most fun I've ever had writing, and, if not some of the best writing I've ever done, certainly among the best.

And, in the intervening years, I have forgotten what I wrote, and have re-read, and others have read what I wrote, and the consensus has been consistent: it is an astonishing, amazing book. Funny, informative, a snapshot of a time and a place that has since become palatable, evidently.

But my book remains unsold. At the time, agents and publishers wrote in reply to my query: "We are not interested in that subject."

In other words, because of the topic, they wouldn't even READ it. Never mind whether it was any good or not. Never mind whether it was "commercial" or not. The IDEA wasn't acceptable, and, therefore, the book was not of interest to them.

Such was the "marketplace of ideas" in the 1980s.

And so, for two decades of the three that I've been a professional, I've been trying to sell my book. There have been times that I have despaired, but I know, deep in my dark heartness, that one day it will sell, and sell well. Any man in the street "gets" it, but no publisher seems to. Those "guardians" of the public discourse have been the darkest kind of bigots, have been the censors, the biased inquisitors of our modern Dark Age, and, with one exception, no publisher has ever agreed to do so much as READ my poor bastard offspring.

Now, at this point, you might think that this is meant as some form of self-pity. No. Nothing could be further from the truth. The years of self-pity, of bitterness and despair are long behind me. I came to the conclusion, long ago, that such a thick-witted and prejudiced (for, in pre-judging a book they wouldn't and won't read, they are, undeniably "prejudiced" in the technically precise sense of the term) gaggle of self-appointed censors should never be given the opportunity to smother the 'spark' of my muse.

I picked myself up and dusted myself off a long time ago, and while I am now marginalized as a "blogger" -- irrespective of my track record or my years of professional work and professionalism -- "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell's motto best expresses how I feel and act nowadays:

Illegitimi non carborundum -- "don't let the bastards grind you down."

Because the only thing dumber than those censorious bastards would be to ALLOW those ignorant, biased Klansmen of the mind to hobble MY writing. As for hobbling my career as an author, well, there's not much I can do about that. The Golden Rule applies in publishing -- he who has the gold makes the rules.

To allow them to squelch my writing would be to spit in the face of my muse -- Calliope, most times, but, increasingly, I am convinced that it must be Polyhymnia.

But you will allow me the modest space, after twenty years, to note that my first-born novel is still alive and well. ("First-born" in the sense of the first novel I've ever written that wasn't either a bad sword-and-sorcery novel -- since burnt on Mark Weiss' bar-b-que grill -- or two novels-for-hire about exactly the same subject that was "not acceptable" to publishers since; I was paid handsomely for it in the early 1980s: two novels that have circled the world in two English editions and returned to me via Alice Springs, Australia and La Paz, Bolivia.)

I did a lot of writing that summer, all of it good, none of it sold, and, finally, moved out of the office, unable to scrape on other than endless meals of 6-for-a-dollar Ramen noodles and scraping up enough money for bus fare by buying rare books at cut-rate used bookstores, and selling them to higher end used bookstores. I generally made about $10 a day, which was enough for Dr. Pepper, cigarettes, and one #3 special at Dos Burritos, in the shade of Barnsdall park.

Thank goddess for the Internet, else the purblind, vicious and stupid publishers of America would continue to strangle the throat of American ideation. For a long time, whole categories of thought were deemed "unpublishable" by those toads.

In the late '70s (pre-Shirley MacLaine), all "New Age" stuff was deemed religious pornography and, thus, not to be printed, save for those small, specialized houses that have always existed around the fringes of publishing.

An agent once told me: "In the 70s, if it was erotica, I could sell it all day long. In the 80s it was romance."

He DID read the book. He DID love it. And he DID get it to Dell Books, whose editor really liked it, but, as marketing departments now run publishing houses, he couldn't ever quite come up with a "marketing proposal" that the sad-sack non-ideators of Marketing would embrace whole-heartedly.

Because, alas, I had, as per usual, not merely thought "outside the box" (that loathsome term so embraced by those bereft of the mildest scintilla of any creative urge), I'd colored outside the book.

[Not, please note, as Al Franken attempted to correct me, "outside the lines," which is a different thing altogether. "Outside the book."]

And the manuscript sat gathering dust for eight months in 1991, while I slept in a trailer in Connecticut, a cheap hooker-infested motel in Santa Monica, California, and, finally, in an unheated, unfinished room in Santa Fe, New Mexico, desperately in need of the advance that ANY sale of the book might bring.

No soap.

Later, in the mid-1990s, my agent would be named in indictments that Eliot Spitzer, the Attorney General of New York state, brought against several unscrupulous agencies involved in scams. But my agent had once been legitimate. Why he fell from grace I doubt I'll ever know.

The book languishes, still. I have tried in the intervening years to interest any publisher or agent (the publishers "closed the shop" in the late '80s and early '90s, so that one was required to be "accepted" by that subspecies of the leech, lamprey or other uncategorized parasite commonly termed the "literary agent.") But, alas, I still can't seem to get them past the idea that my book is Rosa Parks, and they are white bus riders in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955.

But this isn't about just me. Or my book.

This is about a publishing industry in which the ability to write is no longer important, and decidedly NON-literary accoutrements are the decisive factor in publication.

The bastards have finally gotten their fondest wish, as opposed to that ancient dictum that H.L. Mencken often cited with glee: "The publisher drinks wine from the author's skull." They have achieved authorship without authors. Writing without writers, books and best-sellers without those pesky scriveners.

Don't take my word for it. The death of my profession AS a profession is painfully chronicled in author "Jane Austen"s "The confessions of a semi-successful author."

It is a superior essay, and gibes perfectly with my experience and the experience of other authors of my acquaintance (and after thirty years in this game, I have met a couple, trust me). Books no longer need authors to be lucrative. They need media faces with decent Q-ratings.

This point was brought painfully home as I opened this month's VANITY FAIR (and, yes, Virginia, I subscribe to VF, which has caused many a nervous giggle from macho friends and their girlfriends. VF has been, for many years, simply the best magazine in America, and, "gay" though it may flag me to said machismo apologists, I'm not foregoing its many pleasures merely to bolster some false idea of what it means to be "manly." Real men eat quiche. Good quiche, that is.)

Inside was an exquisitely rendered woodcut of a gaggle of the criminally insane: Hannity, Malkin, North, O'Reilly, John Gibson and Neil Cavuto. It is a delightful essay by one of our best writers, the estimable James Wolcott, entitled "The Fox Literary Salon."

But, really, none of them are what you'd call "writers," with the possible exception of Michelle Malkin, whose poisoned pen is not wielded in the name of "literature" to any degree comparable to her yeoman service in the cause of unreasoning hatred and the lowest uses to which the human mind might be placed in service of.

They are termed the new "Algonquin roundtable." I recognize that the characterization is dripping with irony, but, alas, they probably ARE the modern incarnation of the old Algonquin roundtable, noted for its wits, its witticisms, and its taste for dark irony.

Certainly they are lionized and celebrificated by an equally clueless 'new' media, creating a vicious circle of 'bestsellers' generating hype, generating 'bestsellers.' But, while their tomes might bear superficial resemblance to 'books' in the most literal of terms, the resemblance is non-existent in literary terms.

Dorothy Parker -- perhaps our greatest national wit -- is not, sadly, represented in substitution by Michelle Malkin, who may well be our greatest national halfwit. Wholesale prices for shoddy goods, I'd call it, not a fair trade at all. Nor would anyone with half a wit consider Robert Benchley for Bill O'Reilly anything other than a disastrous trade, akin, perhaps to young George W. Bush's trading away Sammy Sosa from the Texas Rangers for some forgettable substitutes.

And speaking of forgettable substitutes (if not elegant seques), who could trade the dull eyes and witlessness of Oliver North and Sean Hannity for Alexander Wollcott and George S. Kaufman (who, between Pulitzers, found time to write for Groucho Marx on Broadway, and was highly regarded by same: both Groucho AND Broadway, note.)

No, if this be our new "Algonquin roundtable" what a dilapidated and pathetic table it must be.

There is nothing ideological here.

I have been attempting to read my review copy of THE ONE PERCENT SOLUTION, by Ron Suskind this week. I have been a book critic for thirty years, but I am on hiatus. I could not stand to cram another crappy and crapulous bit of garbage into my brain for the few dollars that they pay me. American letters has declined precipitously from the fifties and sixties, that much is certain. The modern author is almost a savage, unlettered, unprincipled and unclue'd. And I have been ATTEMPTING to read this hot book of the "Progressive" or "Liberal" bookshelf, except that it is so execrably written that I have not been able to advance beyond the first chapter.

It is amateurish, lousy crap writing. The style is vapid, pretentious and wordy to the point of utter opacity. And it's every bit as crappy as anything Malkin or O'Reilly have "written."

Note that Suskind came to this contract from his book "THE PRICE OF LOYALTY: George W. bush, The White House, and the Education of [ex-Treasury Secretary]Paul O'Neil"l in 2004.

Normally, of course, the book would be BY Paul O'Neill with Suskind either a "with" or an "acknowledgement." Such is the state of our literary nation. And it's not good.

It's not the ideology: it's the idiots.

Even if you worship the "authors" cited by VANITY FAIR's Wolcott article, they are most assuredly NOT up to snuff with the old Hotel Algonquin gang.

And, mostly you know them from their pictures on the TeeVee (or, as my dad insisted constantly, the "boob tube.")

Because auctorial pursuit has been replaced by boobery -- the boobery of teevee talk-show, and radio hatespeak, perhaps, but boobery nonetheless. Can anyone doubt that Dorothy Parker would have sliced these "professional talkers" into tissue-thin strips worthy of the finest Cordon Bleu chef in any extended conversation?

I have very little doubt that in such a "fantasy literary league" matchup, O'Reilly would have to, at the very least, arm himself with a good dictionary, merely to understand the nature Mrs. Parker's droll thrusts, parries and ripostes.

In a battle of wits, our "New" roundtable would enter the fray without hint of arms.

Lotsa 'dint' though: Oliver North would probably sucker-punch Edna Ferber and Robert Sherwood. Cavuto would trip Robert Benchley, and Michelle Malkin would try to bitch-slap Dorothy Parker (who, I have no doubt, would skewer Malkin with her rapier wit, even as she impaled Fox's witchy poltroon with her umbrella).

Basketball stars, movie stars (who at least are required to read as a necessary adjunct to their profession), the "fifteen minutes of fame" crowd, and even nobodies like Paris Hilton (who has, I shall note, a "New York Times Bestseller" under her too-readily unbuckled belt) endlessly populate media slots reserved for authors. What matters is whose picture goes on the dust-jacket; not whose words fill the pages in-between.

They have cheapened my profession; they have degraded writers and authors to the level of Wal-Mart greeters. We stand just inside the literary door, reminding you to "have a nice day." But we have no health insurance, no regular employment, and, indeed, no place inside that literary Wal-Mart that passes for the great American salon of letters here, in this wretched age.

The actual authors toil below, in the literary galleys --literal as well as figurative -- 'ghosts' in the sausage factory that comprises American publishing in this blighted Age.

So, while my intellectual offspring turned 20 years old this week, I do not mourn its absence from bookstores crowded with vile, debased, rudderless, authorless ordure.

Next year my book, LOOKING FOR APHRODITE, will be old enough to vote.

But until I can publish her, no audience will ever be able to vote (with their book dollars) on how well they love her.

And, if no publisher will read her, that vote remains a fantasy, at present, although I have no doubts that she will be published, eventually, when a more enlightened generation assumes the editorial reins.

Meantime, the New York publishing crap machine rolls inexorably on, a juggernaut of tree-murder in service of writing barely worthy of a public restroom wall.

All hail the new Algonquin Round Table. And the siege perilous.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home